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DC3 Dakota pleasure flight from Manchester to Coventry, Berlin and beyond

In July 1988 I took a DC3 Dakota pleasure flight from Manchester Airport to Coventry Airport, home of the plane's operators Air Atlantique. It must have been an unforgettable experience as I am writing this review two decades after the flight, and can remember many details.

There was a special event on at Manchester Airport and I heard in the local media that a classic DC3 or Dakota aircraft was due to visit. I couldn't resist going to take a look.

When I got there I discovered that it was possible to take a flight on the aircraft. Initially I hesitated at the cost - 35 pounds - but thought this would be a once in a lifetime experience. For how long would DC3s like this still be flying?

I have no recollection of what part of the airport I bought the ticket, but remember being ushered to a corner of the domestic departures area at the front of the main terminal building.

At that time, the main concourse still had those impressive glass chandeliers that were later removed.

The DC3 was parked on the apron outside the terminal windows. This was an original aircraft from the 1940s. Unlike the silvery exterior of old, this one was painted in the blue and white colours of Air Atlantique.

Soon we heard the boarding announcement over the tannoy and walked out across the apron, up the small set of steps, placed at the rear door and onto the plane.

Pen and watercolour drawing of DC3 by Aidan O'Rourke
With its cigar-shaped fuselage, rounded nose, split window, curvy, triangular wings and rounded tail, the Dakota is a beautiful aircraft. I felt compelled to do a drawing of it, based on a photograph from an aviation book.

The DC 3 is unlike most modern aircraft in that it has no nosewheel and instead, rests on the tail wheel with nose pointing up into the air.

I had to duck slightly to get in the door, then walked up the sloping floor to my seat.

Though the plane is mostly original, the interior has been adapted to meet modern safety requirements, and so the seats are fully equipped with head rests and belts.

Through the rectangular cabin window I could see the domestic pier, and waited for the doors to be closed and to for it set off on its short flight to Coventry.

The cabin attendants gave the safety demonstration, just like on any other passenger flight.

I'm not sure what, if any, safety information would have been given in past decades. That would be an interesting piece of aviation history to research. (See contribution by Stephen Morrin below.)

That wartime or 1950s feel

Safety demonstration complete, the cabin staff took their seats, and the propellers turned a few silent revolutions before coughing into life.

This is one of the main attractions of a plane like this - the unique and evocative sound of the piston engines, and the blur of the distinctive-looking propellers.

Propeller driven airliners are still in use today but they are powered by smoother sounding turbo-prop engines.

To get that wartime or 1950s feel, you have to experience the distinctive growl and roar of the piston engines. Propellors spinning, engines revving, the Dakota moved away from its parking position.

Taxiing to the top of the main runway, the Dakota mingled with the modern aircraft, gaining admiring looks from passengers and, I'm sure, envious glances from pilots.

Shortly after reaching the top of the runway, the engines fired up and the veteran plane begain to gather speed.

Unlike a jet, there is no feeling of being pressed into the back seat. The acceleration is gentle, though there is a lot of noise and vibration from those hard-working piston engines.

Soon the plane lifted gently into the air and gathered height slowly - no precipitous climbing phase as in a modern jet. Now just a few hundred feet above the Cheshire countryside, the pilot banked the aircraft and turned towards the south, roughly following the course of the M6 motorway.

Flying through rather than above the clouds, there was an intermittent view of the ground. At this height, the buildings roads and fields appear quite close.

Just outside the square porthole, the engines roared and propellers whirred, tearing at the air and pulling the plane through the skies over Staffordshire.

Exciting and maybe a little bit frightening

That sound is so evocative of the mid-20th century era and reminds me of looking up at DC3s and other piston-engined planes above Stockport on their final approach to Manchester Airport in the 1960s.

One of them was to crash in the centre of Stockport in 1967. The book 'The Day the Sky Fell Down' by Stephen Morrin, tells the story of the tragedy.

It's certainly exciting, and maybe a little bit frightening to fly on a plane as old as this. But passengers can rest assured that the aircraft is meticulously restored and maintained by its owners Air Atlantique, and has no problem satisfying the most rigorous modern safety requirements.

It was announced that this plane had flown in the Berlin Airlift. I closed my eyes and imagined we were flying over the Soviet Zone of Germany in 1947, carrying coal or maybe potatoes and other supplies to the beleaguered western zones of Berlin which had been cut off by Soviet forces. They were trying to force the people of West Berlin to succumb to Communist rule, but failed, thanks to the bravery of Allied pilots flying planes such as this one.

I pictured the pilots steering a course towards Tempelhof or Tegel Airport, watching out for Soviet forces below. I'm sure those memories must be imprinted in the metal somewhere.

Following the M6 to the north of Birmingham, the plane began to lose height in preparation for landing at Coventry.

Over to the east there was a big bank of grey clouds. Perhaps it was as well we were returning back to terra firma, though I would gladly have flown around the world on this plane.

Slowly and gently, the Dakota turned to make its final approach and touched down shortly after on the runway at Coventry. Soon we had left the DC3 behind, and were heading back up the M6 on a modern coach, a mundane end to one of the most exciting rides I've ever been on.

20 years on, this particular DC3 continues in service with Air Atlantique and undertakes many types of flight, including pleasure flights, which cost from 55 pounds. Given the 1988 price, that seems extraordinarily good value. Far from going the way of Concorde, it seems the DC3 Dakota will go on flying forever.

Update July 2008: Sadly the Air Atlantique DC3 has been withdrawn from passenger flights due to EU legislation.

In 2010 a DC3 aircraft crashed just after take off from Berlin Schönefeld Airport. DC3 pleasure flights were suspended. For more info do a search for 'DC3 crash Berlin Wikipedia'.

More about the DC3

The ubiquitous DC-3, nearly seventy years after its introduction, is still, in the first decade of the new millennium, on the inventory of many charter airlines, especially in South America and Africa, performing every kind of task imaginable.

The Second World War saw eleven thousand of the type manufactured in the United States, with another four thousand examples constructed in the Soviet Union under licence. Some 500 aircraft were also built in Japan. When the war ended, thousands of ex-military DC-3s flooded the civil market and were eagerly snapped up by operators the world over for passenger, freight and general duties, and in the 1950s the number of DC-3s in service outnumbered the total of all other types of civil transports.

In the early days of DC-3 operations there were usually no safety instructions! The stewardess was there to pass out barley sugar (which helped to stop your ears popping) and if the aircraft was not properly insulated she would also give out cotton wool to stick in your ears and checked that you had sufficient sick-bags!

Over the years, aircraft designers have scratched their heads trying to come up with a DC-3 replacement. The Avro 748, Handley Page Herald and Fokker Friendship were all designed with this in mind, but the Dak still outlived them. It seems the only replacement for a DC-3 is a DC-3!

Written by Steve Morrin, aviation writer, author of The Munich Air Disaster and other titles.

Written by Aidan O'Rourke
Posted/Updated 2007-07-10

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